Gone to Ground

"And then the first guy says, 'But I haven't got any more mynocks!'" A roar of laughter chorused around the Liberty's Lounge, in response to Matt "Krayt" Houseman's joke.

"Oh man... that one's a keeper," Vince "Stryker" Rambo, Rogue Leader, said, wiping a bit of lager off his chin with a napkin and then clapping his XO on the back "You know any better ones?"

"Better ones? Well… my father told that one to me - he knew a thousand of 'em. I don't remember too many that topped it… but I do know some that are about 'on par' with them," Krayt replied with a grin.

"'On par'?" Marc "Prowler" Derosiers, Buccaneer XO, inquired. "I suppose that'll do." He slowly smiled, then glanced around to the other pilots in close proximity: Josh "Nova" Caton, Chris "Animal" Stephen, Buccaneer Leader, Andy "Bulldog" Clark, and Chris "Jalb_k" Reynolds, Corsair Leader.

"Alright, alright," Krayt surrendered, "So there was this Ithorian, and he…" Krayt trailed off, looking up a bit and over Prowler's shoulder, towards the door to the lounge. The best droid pilot in Rogue, 9-LOM, "Syntax" - who also happened to be the only droid pilot in Rogue - slowly walked in, surveying his surroundings and fixing his gaze on the table at which the other pilots sat. Krayt noted that the droid lacked his rifle and pistol, which he normally kept on him at all times, and figured the pilot had just come from the simulators

"'Rescue from Prison Ship Dargon' is a real annoyance," Syntax said dejectedly to no one in particular, confirming Krayt's hunch.

"That it is, Syntax," Bulldog nodded his consent.

"Well, that's expected," Prowler interjected.

"Excuse me?" Syntax said, snapping his gaze over to rest on Prowler's face, a hint of menace in his voice - very uncharacteristic of the LOM-series protocol droid that Syntax started his existence off as.

"You're a droid. It's common knowledge that droids will never be the best pilots. They're limited by their programming," Prowler continued.

"What do you mean by this? I write my own programming."

"Regardless, you're still limited by what you are. A thinking, walking machine."

"…with the ability to learn," Syntax added.

"But what you lack is the ability to program random actions. You may be able to track patterns, and compile patterns into probable courses of action, and execute the one that will best accomplish their goals. You do this, yes?" Prowler asked.

"Yes."

"Thus, you're limited to what you know. The reason you fail in the simulator is that it's programmed from thousands of hours flown by organic pilots. Pilots with the ability to reason on-the-fly, play hunches, toss in wildcards, and mess with their opponent's minds."

"You forget that I have enhanced reflexes. Reflexes that can beat out any organic creature."

"Reflexes that are still based around your programming, which can't cope with random events."

This shut Syntax up, and he looked around at the other pilots, then back at the entrance to the Lounge. He then looked back at Prowler, and finally spoke.

"Prowler, come with me. Now."

"Ahem… perhaps you forget this?" Prowler replied, tapping his Major insignia on his flight jacket.

"We are in 'no décor'. Suit up. We are going for a ride."

"Syntax, what's the meaning of this?" Stryker said as he slowly stood, grinning a bit with bemusement.

"I am being spontaneous, sir. Permission to be spontaneous?" the droid replied.

"Granted. Carry on."

Prowler looked back at Animal, who nodded. "I want to see this…"

"Good, then it is settled. Prowler, meet me in the simulator rooms. We are going to the Pilot's Proving Ground." Syntax said, and then left the cantina, Prowler on his heels.

"I don't think we wanna miss this…" Jalb_k said as he rose and walked out.

"Not at all," Stryker said. He turned to Krayt. "Put up a message to all off-duty personnel. This should be good."


Twenty minutes later, Syntax and Prowler stood in the Liberty's simulator room. Stryker walked towards the two pilots, carrying a datapad.

"The contest is this: three races, the Ringer 1, Ringer 2, and Salvage Yard. Best two out of three, no holds barred. The craft selection will be the A-wing. Is this understood?" Both pilots nodded. "Excellent. Get to your craft, and give us a show." Stryker grinned, then walked off.

Syntax glanced to Prowler, then climbed up into his A-wing, and the Buccaneer pilot did likewise. They closed their cockpits, and the sims engaged the program for Ringer 1.

"Comm check, pilots," Stryker said, seeing the pilots settle into position at the start of the course, Syntax slightly ahead of Prowler.

"Roger," Prowler came back.

"Online," Syntax replied.

"Good. The objective of this course, as you probably know, is to get through the course of rings before your opponent. Cannons on the rings are set to fire ion cannons this time through, so you won't die or anything," the pilots heard Bulldog chuckle in the background. "Destroying the control boxes disables the rings."

Suddenly, Syntax's warning lights lit up as Prowler fired a volley of laser fire from his A-wing right up Syntax's engines.

"What was that, Major? An emotional release?" Syntax replied, pointing out that the cannon fire had done nothing to the A-wing's shields or systems.

"Oh yes, I forgot to add. The cannon systems of your A-wings have been programmed to fire spotting lasers, which will slow down your opponent's craft. Nothing more." There was a muffled curse from Prowler's craft, and another chuckle from Bulldog.

"Alright pilots," Animal said over the comm "We'll start this now. On your marks in three… two… one… go!"

The two A-wings launched away and into the ring course, Prowler firing a volley of lasers up Syntax's engines and causing him to slow down. However, he didn't anticipate Syntax pulling up on the stick as Prowler tried to pass overhead, and his A-wing collided with it at full-speed, launching off it like a ramp and up over the second ring, after the first one had accelerated him to over 200 Megalights. Prowler launched off the course, just as Syntax throttled back up and through the first few rings.

"Mr. Derosiers," Stryker said, in the most pleasant voice he could manage, "Please try to stay on the course."

Prowler snarled, and pulled his ship back down and onto the course. However, Syntax was already a good 12 rings ahead - a tough lead to recover from.

Syntax's A-wing raced through the rings, paying little attention to the mounted lasers that were chipping away at his shields. Prowler was gradually catching up, and knew not to plow into Syntax this time he tried to pass him. Syntax raced down around a wide arc of rings, wide enough that Prowler's laser blasts sailed back behind Syntax's engines. The rings continued to count down on both pilots' displays. Suddenly, a laser blast punched through Syntax's aft shield. Syntax cut back his throttle and sent his craft into a controlled spin, allowing Prowler to inadvertently regain some more lost distance. Rings rushed by at manic pace, the two pilots relying wholly on reflexes to get them through the course.

The counter continued to count down as the two pilots pulled through a course of harrying turns and loops, until they reached the final twenty. Syntax took a blast directly in the engines, which cut his speed back. Prowler pulled up behind him, shunting some power into his cannons and firing a blast up Syntax's engines. Prowler blasted ahead as Syntax's A-wing slowed down.

"Yeeha!" Prowler whooped as he raced ahead, Syntax struggling to keep up. As they reached the home stretch, Syntax fired off a wild laser shot, catching Prowler's left engine. He slowed a bit, allowing Syntax to pull up underneath him. Syntax yanked back on the stick, lifting his nose into the underside of Prowler's craft and forcing it up into the final ring, instantly stopping its forward motion. Prowler's head snapped forward as his craft abruptly stopped, and Syntax continued through the ring for the first victory.

"Winner of round one is… Syntax, Rogue Four!" Stryker said over the comm, causing a chorus of cheers from the viewers in the Liberty, a fair percentage of which were astromech units. "We are resetting now all ion damage done to your craft, please wait while we upload round two."

The screens on the two simulators blacked out, and then flashed up with the second course, Ringer 2.

"Alright people, as you already know, this is the extended version of Ringer 1. It is double the length, and as an added hazard, it has lasers mounted on the front and back of the rings on the second half of the course," Stryker said. "All weapon configurations for both the rings and your craft are the same. Prepare to race."

"Starting in three… two… one… go!" Animal said, indicating the start of the race.

Again, Syntax's slight starting lead allowed him to pull out in front from the beginning, and again Prowler fired a blast of laser energy up Syntax's engines, cutting his speed back to only 75 Megalights. However, this time Prowler didn't cruise straight up Syntax's aft and subsequently off the course, and instead put his ELS at 75/0, allowing for speed while keeping his lasers from draining. He rocketed through the first seven rings of the course, blasting out the control boxes on those rings with lasers with pinpoint accuracy. Syntax, meanwhile, slammed his throttle control all the way forward, taking advantage of the safety increase Prowler had generated by shooting the control boxes. It disabled the lasers for both pilots, and allowed Syntax to blast through the course at full-tilt with very little concern for the safety of his craft.

Prowler looked over his shoulder, noting Syntax's rapid approach, but suddenly snapped his head back around as a laser blast played across the front of his ship - he'd entered the second half of the course! Throttling back up and shunting power into his cannon system, Prowler went into a lazy spin, allowing most of the shots to miss his craft as he sped through the next six rings. Syntax, however, had enough time to catch up to the Buccaneer pilot, and pull alongside him. Prowler tried swinging his A-wing to the right, to hit Syntax, but the droid pilot anticipated a move like that, pulling back on the stick and allowing Prowler to slam into the inside of one of the rings. Syntax launched ahead, evading as to avoid Prowler's potshots from behind. Syntax's A-wing was pelted with shots from the front and back of the rings, gradually depleting his shields and capping off his speed, allowing Prowler to gradually pull into range as the two pilots pulled into he 15-ring countdown. Syntax's shields failed as Prowler pulled into laser range, firing a linked blast up Syntax's two engines. The shots hit dead-on, stopping his ship dead in space and allowing Prowler to pass him. Syntax tracked Prowler's A-wing as he throttled up, and pulled the trigger - to realize he had no laser power. He slammed the throttle forward, accelerating through the next set of rings… and right in the range of a laser-mounted ring. Since Syntax lacked shields, the ion blasts played across his hull, disabling his craft. Warnings lit up everywhere, but then went out as his ship went completely offline, klaxon systems and all.

Meanwhile, Prowler flew through the final ring, then decelerated.

"Winner of round two is… Prowler, Buccaneer Five!" Stryker said, causing another chorus of cheers from the spectators. "Prepare for the final round."

The insides of both cockpits went black, and then uploaded round three's course: Salvage Yard - Hot Fly Through.

"Hot Fly Through? I thought this was just the Yard!" Prowler said, noticing the bouncing debris in the entry chute to the Yard processing station. Various pieces of metal and other materials ricocheted around inside the chute at varying speeds, making the course hazardous from the get-go.

"Are you complaining? We could always just have you forfeit…" Syntax trailed on.

"Never. Let's rock."

"That's what I like to hear from my pilots," Animal said.

"This is it, gentlemen, and droid," Stryker said. "Winner takes all, first to the finish line."

"Prepare yourselves, pilots. Start in three… two… one… go!" Animal said, indicating the beginning of the third and final round. Syntax rocketed ahead and into the chute, Prowler tight on his tail. However, Prowler didn't see a piece of metal come spinning off the side wall, and it clipped the back end of his left engine. This sent him into a wall, cutting his speed by half and lighting up his shield warning as his A-wing ground against the unyielding wall.

Syntax, on the other hand, tracked the majority of the larger debris pieces in his head, calculating velocities and trajectories up to 15 seconds into the future based on angles and speeds at which they collided with the walls and each other. This allowed him to accurately plot his course through the opening chute.

Prowler accelerated, righting his craft and slamming the throttle forward to full. He deftly evaded most of the debris, but noticed something flash out of the corner of his eye. He looked up, then cut his throttle to zero as a chunk of metal bounced in front of his A-wing. It had nearly come down on his cockpit. Prowler throttled back up and rocketed out of the opening chute, making a hard bank to the right and towards the first collection room, where large metal ingots began their journey into the smelting plant. Prowler looked ahead, seeing Syntax round the corner and cruise into the first set of accelerator rings.

Syntax roared through the first three rings, but his speed was cut short when a laser blast from one of the armed rings hit his ship just behind the cockpit. He evaded slightly, but Prowler caught up with him, pulling up underneath his craft and lifting it with the nose of his A-wing. Syntax turned the joystick, struggling to roll his craft to free it from Prowler's but his A-wing's left laser cannon clipped the next accelerator ring. The front of the A-wing was pulled through the ring, but the cannon was sheared clean off, causing warning bells and whistles to go off within Syntax's craft. Prowler pulled out ahead.

"Ouch, that'll ruin your day," Animal whispered to Jalb_k, a big grin on his face.

Prowler cruised around the next set of rings, disabling the armed ones by shooting the control boxes, dodging metal ingots floating through the course but Syntax managed to catch up with him. The left side of his A-wing was sparking, but it was still functional. The two A-wings flew out of the final ring and into the smelter proper. Laser cannons mounted on the ceiling fired deadly laser blasts down into the molten metal - these weren't the ion cannons that lined the accelerator rings. Prowler cut his speed to 33% and pulled down and to the right, into the lava tubes. However, Prowler misgauged the turn angle, clipping the wall on the left side, and Syntax pulled in behind him. Syntax throttled up, drawing power from his shields to increase engine capacity, and pulled in above Prowler's craft. Prowler looked up, seeing the A-wing and then seeing it angle up a bit.

"Wha-?" was all Prowler managed to get out before Syntax's craft came down hard on top of his, driving it into the molten metal. Prowler's cockpit lit up with warnings as his shields failed, and Syntax rocketed ahead around the first corner. Prowler pulled his ship out, and accelerated, decidedly pissed off. The two A-wings sped through the lava tubes, compensating for the sharp curves and abrupt drop-offs. Towards the end, the tube leveled off, and there was a lit opening in the roof. Syntax corkscrewed his A-wing, angling up and into the opening, with Prowler hot on his tail. Inside the next room, a row of centrifuges spun at varying speeds, separating out the various metals from the smelter's molten mixture. Syntax sped up, flying out of the opening and into the larger room. However, Prowler took a direct hit on the left side of his craft as one of the centrifuge arms came around at full speed slamming into his A-wing and sending it spinning away. This drew a fair amount of audible winces from the observing crowd watching the Liberty's simulator playback screens.

Syntax inverted his A-wing and timed it so it would fly out of the large room just as the centrifuge came around again. He flew through the narrow opening, leveling out again and flying above one of the molten ingots. He flew out of the opening towards the final set of accelerator rings, with Prowler following in hot pursuit. Prowler loosed a laser blast, peppering Syntax's aft and slowing it down, right in front of an armed ring. The ring opened fire, depleting Syntax's shields and allowing Prowler to pass him by. The two craft sped through the final rings at breakneck pace, Prowler easily avoiding the laser blasts of the armed rings, and Syntax right in his wake. In the final rings, Syntax took a blast right in the engines, disabling them, and his ship began to slow.

"Haha! Gotcha, Syntax," Prowler said, cruising on the final straight-away to the finish line.

Syntax lined up a shot, however, and pulled the trigger once, his single functional cannon lancing out a beam of energy, playing squarely across Prowler's aft. His speed reduced, Prowler's shieldless craft slowed right into the sights of one of the armed rings, the trio of ion blasts smacking his ship dead-on, taking it offline.

Syntax, meanwhile, had enough momentum to carry himself through another of the rings, boosting his speed a bit, which continually carried him through another set, then past Prowler, and into the container at the end for the victory.

"The winner of round three, and subsequent winner of the contest, is… Syntax, Rogue Four!" Stryker said over the comm, a chorus of cheers and a round of applause audible in the background.

The simulator machines switched off and the two ace pilots hopped out, greeted by claps on the back and another round of applause.

"Nice shot," Prowler said to his droid opponent, extending his right hand, a wide grin on his face.

"Yeah, I get that a lot," Syntax replied, and took the extended hand and shook it firmly.

"Damn…" Animal mumbled behind them, fishing around in his pockets, Jalb_k standing beside him, chuckling.

The two contestants turned to look. "What is it, sir?" Prowler asked.

"Well… at the start of the race, Jalb_k and I made a little… wager." Prowler began to grin.

"Lemme guess. You don't have the cash on you to pay up, do you?"

"Nope."

"Well, you could always pay for it via forms of potable liquids, available at the Lounge…" Jalb_k suggested, his grin growing wider.

"Hmm… that's not a bad idea. In fact…" Animal turned to the chatting crowd. "Free drinks on the victor, 9-LOM, Syntax!" he called out. The crowd bellowed a cheer, and rushed out to the lounge.

After the crowd cleared, Syntax turned to the Buccaneer commanding officer. "There are easier and less-expensive ways to clear a crowd. Like dropping a live thermal detonator in their midst, for example. Or switching off the magnetic containment field in a hangar."

"Yes, I know, but none of those will get the rest of the off-duty crew pissed-drunk," Animal replied, and smiled.

"And just think," Stryker said as he clapped the droid pilot on the back, "they'll be toasting you, the best…"

"…And only…"

"…droid pilot in the Alliance." The pilots exited the sim room, walking back to the Lounge.